Interview with Curtis Sittenfeld
9th Apr 2018
The writer Curtis Sittenfeld is shortlisted for her story Do-Over. She shares her thoughts on “revenge writing”, the much-hyped short story revival, and discusses the reasons why this year’s shortlist is dominated by American writers
Where did the idea for the story, Do-Over, come from? Was it an easy story to write?
For a few years, I was fiddling with a different idea about a woman who’d attended boarding school and whose boarding school memories got churned up by an incident in her present adult life. I started writing the story, and, for a few reasons, it just wasn’t working. I set it aside. After Trump took office in January 2017, I felt as alarmed as many other people did, and it occurred to me to tell another post-boarding-school story (many decades post-boarding-school), except this one would be from a man’s perspective and the election itself would be the churning incident. Do-Over was the result.
How do you describe your style of writing for people who may not have read your work before?
I say it’s realistic and that I’m interested in themes of class, gender, and social and romantic awkwardness. Doesn’t that sound irresistible?
For the first time, all six of the writers shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award are American. What do you think is so compelling about the American short story tradition?
I suppose it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – there are lots of American writing programmes and conferences where many students and professors write short stories, so if you’re plugged into the American writing community, you know this is a thing that it’s possible to do.
Which short story by another author has had the most profound effect on you and why?
My all-time favourite writer is Alice Munro, and there are several of her stories that I feel like I’ve carried inside me for years. In particular, I both love (as a person) and admire (as a writer) her story The Albanian Virgin in the collection Open Secrets. It’s wildly ambitious in its structure and scope, and it contains brilliant observations about gender, romantic love, and companionship.
Should writers mine their own experience for stories, or is it acceptable to “steal” from elsewhere?
Heaven help all of us if writers were permitted to mine only their own experiences! It’s acceptable to mine, and it’s also acceptable to steal, though it’s better to do either because it serves the story, rather than out of a wish for revenge. I’m sure some decent art has been motivated by revenge, but I don’t think most has.
How do you know when a short story is finished? What are the signs, for you, that it’s done and ready to be taken out into the world?
The most frequent sign for me, across various stories, is that I start making tiny changes, then reversing those changes, then making them again. When I can no longer tell if I’m improving the story or just altering it, at least the first draft is finished.
Do you think the short story is experiencing something of a revival?
Several writers usually associated with novels have story collections coming out now, among them Joyce Carol Oates, Lionel Shriver, Joseph O’Neill, and Lauren Groff. I myself have written five novels and the story collection being published early next month is my first. And then there’s the high level of attention generated by the recent New Yorker story, Cat Person, (a story I personally loved). All that said, I suspect it’s that stories are on the current cultural radar more than that they’re behaving any differently than they usually do. For my entire adult life, every week when I receive The New Yorker in the mail, I open it to the table of contents and look to see who wrote the short story. And week in, week out, there IS a short story there, and The New Yorker is merely the most prominent American venue for them, not the only venue. Lots of people are always writing and reading short stories. Of course, if there’s the perception of a short story revival, that’s all to the good – maybe I shouldn’t try to convince anyone otherwise?
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
I’m very flattered. I’ve been lucky in my writing career, but I’ve never been shortlisted for a major prize like this. I loved the other nominees’ stories, and I really look forward to meeting the writers themselves so I can express my admiration in person. Perhaps the most concrete evidence of my excitement is that I’m considering wearing a dress to the ceremony, which I usually do only when I’m getting married or someone else is…
Interview by Sophie Haydock
Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of five novels: ‘Prep’, ‘The Man of My Dreams’, ‘American Wife’, ‘Sisterland’ and ‘Eligible’. Her first story collection, ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’, will be published in May 2018 (Doubleday UK, Random House US in April). Her books have been selected by The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly and People for their “Ten Best Books of the Year” lists, optioned for television and film, and translated into twenty-five languages. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Esquire, and her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Slate. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is married with two children and lives in the American Mid-West.